One of the foundational values of my family of churches has always been the convergence of Word and Spirit. Starting and building churches where God’s word in the Bible was held in high esteem and taught with depth, clarity and cutting edge application, and where the experience of God’s Spirit was craved, His presence was enjoyed and His gifts were used in gathered worship (as well as other contexts). For me, this was a key part of why I got involved in this movement in the first place.
Recently, I have been finding myself having more conversations than ever about this topic. Some of these conversations are with people who (like me) come from a background where there was a big emphasis placed on leaning into the Word, but there was an ‘open but cautious’ approach to things of the Spirit (as opposed to the ‘eager desire’ spoken of in Scripture). Other conversations were with people whose background made them more comfortable leaning into the Spirit but who were wary that focussing too much on the Word could make things feel too dry or academic. I have never met a church planter who would say they don’t want the Word, nor one that would say they don’t want the Spirit, but I have met plenty who from the way they articulate their values and run their meetings show that one of them is a higher priority than the other.
I believe this is a mistake. We should be planting churches that are leaning into the Word and leaning into the Spirit simultaneously. This doesn’t mean settling for ‘slightly less Word than the Bible-guys and slightly less Spirit than the charismatics’, as though 75% of each is enough. It isn’t . We should be shooting for 100% of both. Learning from everyone and taking the best of both worlds, but never being willing to settle for Word at the expense of Spirit, nor for Spirit at the expense of Word.
In fact, I would go further. When you downplay the Word, you not only miss out on the Word but you also miss out on part of the Spirit’s ministry. The Scriptures are Spirit-inspired, and as they are read and taught it is the Spirit who applies the word to us and reveals Jesus to us through them. Similarly, when we downplay the Spirit, we are not only quenching what He wants to do among us, but we are missing out on the fulness of the Word (after all, the Bible has quite a lot to say about the work of the Spirit). There is a tragic irony in dismissing certain passages of Scripture in the name of being ‘Bible-Centred’.
As I have reflected on these recent conversations, I have become more certain than ever that Word and Spirit belong together. As we continue planting new churches, we shouldn’t assume that this convergence will happen on its own. It is a key value that we should build in from the start.
In the rest of the article, I share a few of the ways that I have found helpful in encouraging a longing for both the Word and the Spirit in a new church plant.
Leaning Into the Word
1. Bible Saturated Meetings
When you plan your gathered times together, what place do you see the Bible having? Obviously there is the preaching, which I will discuss more below, but it seems to me odd to say that we prize the Bible as God’s living Word to us and then ignore it for much of our meeting. When we gather I try to open the meeting by reading a couple of verses that engage people into the worship, and as we reach different elements of the service, such as the offering or the communion, we will explain what we are doing from the Scriptures. Similarly as we worship together as a body, people will frequently bring verses as contributions along with prayers, prophecies and the like. When a more unusual gift is brought (e.g. tongues or words of knowledge) we will ground it by briefly explaining what has happened from the Bible.
Another dimension of this is song selection. Simon Brading gets into this topic in our latest podcast episode, as he discusses the difference between ‘revelation’ songs and ‘response’ songs. Of course there is a place for singing love songs to Jesus, but there is also a place for singing the glorious truths of what he has done for us, and for exalting Him as our Saviour and our King. By choosing songs that are rich on Biblical truth, we stir for hearts for worship and fill our souls so that when the moment for the response song comes our hearts are full and ready to overflow with praise back to God. If we miss this our worship can actually be quite man-centred as it focusses on our love for God more than his love for us shown through the gospel, so let us take care to saturate our whole meetings, including our singing, with rich Biblical truth.
2. Soaking In the Gospel
The Bible is one unified story that is focussed around the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ (see Luke 24:45-57). The Gospel message is the very centre of what God is doing in history, and it must be the centre of what we do too. In the point above, I mentioned that I tend to start our meetings with Bible verses. I find the most effective verses for this purpose are those that outline clearly and briefly what Christ has done for us. Getting our mind on this right from the start sets the tone for a great time together as the people of God. Similarly, when pastoring people we are not simply looking to give them strategies to manage the challenges they face and self-help tips; it is only through the Gospel that we are saved and it is only through the Gospel that we grow and change. Whatever we preach about, I want to place it into God’s big story (this means having a good knowledge of and being able to teach Biblical Theology well – which is perhaps a post for another day) and to bring it to the cross and resurrection of Jesus because all Scripture finds its fulfilment in the gospel. If somebody preaches the Gospel in your church plant and it feels like a significant gear change from everything else that you are doing, this should be a warning sign that something needs to change.
3. Expository Preaching
The two main types of preaching used today are expository preaching (preaching through books of the Bible) and topical preaching (bringing various Bible passages to bear on a specific theme). When topical preaching is done well it brings the whole sweep of Scripture to bear on the topic, deeply engaging with some of the key texts along the way, and there is a place for this kind of preaching from time to time to address specific issues that may be relevant for the congregation. Topical preaching done badly may start with a Bible verse as a launchpad for the preacher to speak about some of their own ideas that aren’t really there in the passage, and this should be avoided if we claim to revere the Scriptures.
As I plan my preaching, I want expository preaching to make up the lion’s share of what we do. By preaching through books of the Bible we let the Scripture set the agenda for what we talk about and guard against the dangers of repeatedly returning to a few favourite topics or avoiding difficult or contentious issues. If God’s Word is truly all profitable then we should look to engage with it all, and expository preaching is one of the best way’s of doing this. Practically speaking, I try to preach this way about 80% of the time, leaving space for the odd strategically chosen topical message or series, and as I train up other preachers it is into this kind of preaching.
4. Theological Conversations with Leaders
What happens when you gather with your leaders or your core team? There will usually be things you need to talk about regarding pastoring people well, planning or debriefing events and dreaming up new strategies for fulfilling the mission. You will most likely also pray together. All of this is very good and it is important that these things keep happening. But do you ever get to the point of opening your Bibles together and going deep?
I recently had a member of my team ask me a question about how we were going to do communion in our church plant. It would have been easy to rattle off a practical answer (do it every week, put the table at the side of the room, have both wine and juice available, people dip the bread into the wine/juice, etc.) but instead we spent an hour with the team reading a ton of Bible passages, starting with the passover narrative, and tracking through and understanding of what communion is all about and how this shapes our practice. By doing this my own understanding was sharpened, the team was much better equipped to explain our practice to others, and we were living out our value of leaning into the word by taking a Bible-first approach to the question rather than a pragmatics-first approach. We have tried to take a similar approach with many areas of theology, ministry philosophy and practice, and are ever looking to be sharpened as a church by what we read together in Scripture.
5. Share Your Journey
To lead a church in leaning into the Word, you must first be leaning into the Word in your own life. Obviously you need to be reading it often, but you also need to be engaging with it and letting it shape you. Can your people see you wrestling with new insights from the word on a regular basis? Have they ever seen you change your mind on an issue because of something the Bible says? Have they seen you change your habits or practices because you are determined to live out the Word?
When people see you are leaning hard into the word yourself and digging out fresh glories it increases an appetite for the Word in their own life and builds the credibility that you really do believe what you are saying as you lay this foundational value in the church. Recently as a few of us gathered before a Sunday meeting I shared a couple of verses that I had never really noticed before (John 7:53-8:1) as I encouraged us in prayer. This simple act of showing what I had been learning in the Bible over the last few days was a building block in helping the church lean into the Word. Finding lots of similar contexts for you and your people to share your journeys in the Word are a key part of establishing a love for the Word in the church you plant.
Leaning Into the Spirit
1. Dig Deep Wells In Personal Prayer
Trying to shape church gatherings that have a sense of God’s manifest presence is not something that you can make happen through human plans or carefully implemented tactics. You want God to make himself known, and to draw near to you with his presence. James writes ‘Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you’. Before you can lead your people into vibrant experience of the Spirit, you need to be experiencing his presence yourself. Taking time for deep, intimate communion with God must be a non-negotiable for a church planter. There are other things that you can make do without, but not this.
I am amazed how often I hear preachers talking about prayer start by confessing that their prayer life is a struggle. I understand the need for authenticity and the desire to be real when teaching into something that you are finding challenging, but it seems like this happens around the topic of prayer much more than any other topic. When so many leaders, pastors and church planters find prayer such a struggle, this is an issue that we need to work hard to address. It might not be easy, but fighting for your prayer life is probably the most important thing to work on for your ministry, and your Christian life, if it is an area you struggle in.
Take time with God in prayer. Don’t rush, and don’t limit it to your petitions. Bringing our requests to God is part of prayer, but only part of it. Make space to also listen to God, dwell on who he is, praise and worship him, and enjoy still moments of precious intimacy with the Father. Mother Theresa was once asked what she said when she prayed, and she answered, ‘I don’t say that much, I mainly listen.’ The interviewer then asked what God said to her, and she replied, ‘He doesn’t say that much either. He mainly just listens.’ She concluded, ‘If you don’t understand this, you don’t understand prayer.’
Taking time to regularly fellowship with and enjoying the Father has an effect. You learn to recognise his voice and discern what he may be doing. Through your own spiritual experience you can model what it is to walk in the Spirit, and others will be attracted and drawn to know this day by day closeness to God. As this happens, you will be building a people who know God, and your church will begin to take on the spirit-filled character that you crave.
2. Leave Space For Contributions In Worship
The way you structure your meeting does make a difference. If you hold things too tightly to a plan it will be easy to throttle what the Spirit might bring through different people in the congregation. 1 Corinthians 14 says, “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” The clear idea here is that the congregation worships as a body, with the Spirit giving contributions for different people to make. The chapter includes teaching on how to manage this time in a orderly and profitable manner, but it doesn’t give the hint of a suggestion to back away from these elements of gathered worship.
When we hold too much control over what can happen from ‘the front’ it can quench the spirit. There should be space in our gatherings for people to bring these kinds of contributions. We find that leaving a bit of space between songs with instrumental background music is a good way of facilitating this, but I have seen other ways of doing it as well. I encourage people to bring their contribution from where they are sitting (rather than coming to the front) as this encourages the feeling of being a body, and I don’t ‘vet’ the contributions before they are brought as I want people to be clear that it is the Spirit who is leading the worship time, not the musicians or elders. Of course, this does mean there are times where a contribution needs to be redirected or even corrected, but I have found these times to be rare.
I am aware that some larger churches have some logistic challenges for engaging in this kind of worship as the body given the size of the congregation, and I can understand why they take practical measures to make it work for them, but for me this would serve as another argument that they should plant again. Repeatedly multiply congregations or churches that can worship according to this Biblical pattern. For a church plant there is no reason at all not create space for these kind of contributions.
3. Faith and Expectation
Back in 2001, Terry Virgo made the provocative statement in his autobiography, ‘No Well Worn Paths’ that, “in more recent years it has become alarmingly observable that in many so-called Charismatic churches… the use of spiritual gifts seems to have declined rather than increased. A sad lack of expectation of the manifestation of the presence of God has led to some passivity and predictability.” Seventeen years on the same could be said (perhaps even more so), and the insight that the problem is a lack of expectation of the manifestation of God’s presence is a key one.
When we gather as the people of God, we are, according to the Bible, a temple – a dwelling place of God. As we gather we must cultivate a sense of expectation that God’s presence will be manifest among us. This is equally true in a church plant of twelve people as it is in an established church of two hundred. How do you talk about your meetings? How do you pray about them? Expectancy that God will move is a key factor in us leaning in and pursuing what the Spirit wants to do.
4. Come Prepared
One thing that I have found helpful is coming prepared with things to share during the worship time. There can sometimes be a false belief that if something is truly of the Spirit then it must be spontaneous, but there is no basis for this assumption. I make a point of praying in the days leading up to one of our gatherings about whether there are any words, pictures or Bible verses that God would give me to share. When I go into the meeting with a few things that I believe God has said to me in the week, I still want to discern what the Spirit is doing and which if any of those things to bring (or perhaps God will say something different in the moment). I encourage others on the team to also ask God in advance if there are things he would have them bring, and so I know there is a core of people who have been seeking God and listening ready for what he has to say. This is a great starting point for hearing God’s prophetic voice at work in our meetings.
5. Share Your Journey
In the same way that by sharing your journey in the Word you can lead people into it, so the same is true as you share your journey in the Spirit. Are you regularly drawing your heart to God and worshipping? Are you hearing His voice? What is He saying? What experiences are you having with Him? Are you encountering Him through the gift of tongues (if you don’t have that gift, are you asking Him for it?) Are you hungry for God and fasting for His presence? Are you stepping out and praying for healing the sick? What adventures has he led you on recently?
As you talk to people and disciple them, share parts of this story. Don’t do it in a way that makes you seem like a spiritual superhero – be real with the downs as well as the ups. As you do and people see your hunger for God and the joy, freedom and adventure you find as you open yourself up to the leading of the Spirit, it will be contagious and will help to establish the core value of leaning into the Spirit in your church plant.
Word and Spirit belong together, so what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.